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What’s the best way to get young people engaged in leadership? We asked them

February 26, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongMethod
“Mentors should serve as sources of encouragement for our students, but more importantly, they should help provide the tools through which our students claim their own voices and become their own source of empowerment.”

That’s from City Year AmeriCorps member Michael Harding, who wrote about the importance of Black male educators and role models for us last week.

Throughout youth leadership month of Generocity’s 2019 editorial calendar, we’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of centering young people’s voices when discussing issues that affect them — an extension of the common refrain heard in the social impact sector that representation matters.

Some inspiration: a January 2018 guest post titled “Young people should be partners in the fight to end youth homelessness in Philly” coauthored by Mantua youth advocate Da’Quan Wilson and Rashni Stanford, a youth housing organizer and Stoneleigh Emerging Leader fellow with Youth Healers Stand Up at People’s Emergency Center.

In it, Stanford and Wilson ask:

“For agencies and programs that serve young people struggling with homelessness, what will you do this year to authentically partner with young people in the fight to end youth homelessness? Will you listen to both criticisms and successes equally? Will you create real infrastructure to build youths’ capacities for advocacy work? Will you invite youth to collaborate in program development, research initiatives, or practice considerations?”

As we wrap up youth leadership month, we asked three youth advocacy professionals and four young people they work with to answer the same question — “What’s the best way to get young people engaged in leadership?” — as it relates to their organizations. Here’s what they had to say.

From our Partners

Youth United for Change

Uchechi Ezengwa and Sean Hollis, 11th graders at Central High School:

To be engaged in roles of leadership, we have to be interested in taking that space. Our communities have issues and most times we won’t know about the power dynamics that create them. Exposing those dynamics give room for youth to step up and take those positions if they believe it will make a difference.

Nick Ospa, citywide organizer: 

It’s important to have a vision to share with students about what is possible. Some students are already interested in leadership development long before I meet them, while others may have not yet been struck by something that resonates and awakens what may be right under the surface. It’s important for me to challenge and develop those that are already inclined toward leadership while figuring out how to agitate those who are less inclined.

In order to do that, that vision must be able to demonstrate what might be the potential impact on their own lives and how that could reverberate and impact others. In an organizing context, it’s showing them that there is a legacy of young people advancing social change and winning policies that improve their own material conditions and tying that to their self-interests. This requires us to help students identify what their self-interests even are based on how they are situated in society. If you can demonstrate that it is worth their time and they will grow in the process, you’ll often be successful engaging youth.

Juvenile Law Center

Anthony Simpson, youth advocate at JLC project Youth Fostering Change:

The most effective way to get young people actively engaged in leadership is to help them develop the proper tools to take on a leadership roles and opportunities, such as public speaking or leading group decision making or various topics. At Juvenile Law center we are also compensated for all our time and utilize the benefits of incentives like transportation and providing additional support from a needs-based fund to support and retain youth and keep them motivated. I strongly believe, that by enabling a youth to realize and use the power of their own voice gets them engaged and excited to take on leadership roles.

Marcía Hopkins, senior manager of youth advocacy programs and policy:

The best way to engage youth in leadership is working with youth to build their leadership skills by asking youth what their interests are, meeting them where they are and building on their strengths to enhance their leadership skills. We aim to do this both within our programs but also within their personal lives. In our Youth Advocacy Program, we focus on building on youths’ experiences and expertise by training them through public speaking, knowledge of systems, political knowledge, storytelling, and strategic communications. Young people have the power to develop strategies and policies to improve systems for other youth like themselves.

Juvenile Law Center youth meeting with Philly public defenders. (Courtesy photo)

People’s Emergency Center

Jessica Keel, certified peer specialist, member of the Young Adult Leadership Committee with the Office of Homeless Services, and a founding youth organizer with PEC project Youth Healers Stand Up:

Maximize on young people’s strengths that they already have, and show them ways they can contribute to a solution that they may not have noticed before. We collectively have found it effective to engage youth who are housing insecure through our Visioning Sessions, so that we have straight from their mouths issues that they notice, and we can provide them space express to us solutions to those issues.

When it comes to the youth we are working with, we often hear ‘They’re not going to do anything about it’ when we ask them for solutions to complex issues like holding foster parents accountable or giving  young people in those systems  a real voice in major decisions in their lives. Because of this, the youth we work with need to see tangible impacts of their work, so that they don’t experience burnout when it comes to the work of being a young leader.

Rashni Stanford, youth housing organizer and Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow with Youth Healers Stand Up:

When it comes to the young people the Healers represents, having access to a living wage feels like the most pressing issue. Because of that, providing youth compensation for their participation in leadership is an important way that we engage youth both within our membership and our community. Contrary to popular belief, in the past year we have seen paid youth work extra hard to provide authentic solutions to youth homelessness, and even attempt to refuse payment for some activities because they felt their participation was meaningful enough.

I also agree with Jess’s suggestion to provide opportunities for leadership where youth can see the effects of their organizing and advocacy in the short-term, so that they can build up confidence and skill while working on long-term change.

Jess Keel:

I like that Rashni brought up how youth have refused payment because it highlights an anti-stigma that youth are incapable of taking things seriously without an incentive. This goes to show that youth are naturally passionate about the issues that surround them, and they are aware of how policy decisions at the city, federal, and program level impact their lives. So, it’s our responsibility to provide them the proper education and tools that they say they need in order to bring about a hope for change.

Provide employment and internship opportunities so that youth can build their self-esteem and drive to expand their leadership roles after establishing a level of comfort within themselves.


Youth United for Change

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